The Importance of Family Engagement in Student Success
“Until we can influence the homes of our most vulnerable students, we will not make the gains we want.” As a principal, I hear some version of this statement given as to why many school improvement efforts will not work. Often, this is the chief argument of educators. And in many ways, it’s true. That is precisely why I am passionate about family engagement. While much in education is out of our control, family engagement is not, and by improving family engagement we improve outcomes in measurable ways.
Volumes have been written on improving outcomes in schools. Among them, programs, instructional approaches, leadership changes, and professional development for school employees are all options. Family engagement takes a different approach. While most improvement efforts involve development from within (i.e. professional development,), engaging families connects those outside of the school to what goes on inside.
As obvious as it may seem, educators often forget that most households are not directly involved in the world of pedagogy. Despite that, we spend little effort in educating families about what we do in schools. Consequently, families often fall back to their own positive or negative experiences of schooling.
One of the most compelling reasons to increase family engagement in schools is to break negative cycles. We know that poverty and negative educational experiences go hand in hand. In a study done by Misty Lacour and Laura D. Tissington, there was a 47-points difference on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study between students from low-income families and students from mid-upper income families (Lacour & Tissington, 2011). Additionally, Micheal Knapp and Patrick Shields confirm that, “student achievement, particularly for at-risk students, is affected by the values […] of the family and community,” (Shields, 1991). This is where family engagement truly shines. When schools are effective in their family engagement practices, they break negative attitudes and values toward schooling.
What is Family Engagement?
For years, Title I schools operated on specific requirements around what was called “parent involvement.” In recent years, that verbiage has changed to a more appropriate term, “family engagement.” While the difference is subtle, it’s significant. Since 2018, Union Elementary School, a rural elementary school of approximately 450 students in Shelby, NC, has taken on the goal of engaging 100% of its families. Before this was possible, the faculty and leadership team at UES had to define family engagement. The definition they came up with was simple, yet powerful. In essence, a family is engaged when one or more staff members at Union Elementary engage personally with a member of a student’s family (other than the student) in a way that could improve outcomes for the student.
Of course, the staff was already engaging families in many ways. Between Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, 504 meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and the like, many families were already being reached in powerful ways, but not 100%. So, they began tracking all family engagement.
Measuring Student Outcomes from Increased Family Engagement
We knew that before we could reach our goal, we would need to track what families were being engaged through which events and activities. With the help of our School Improvement Team, leadership developed a simple yet powerful tool for monitoring family engagement. Any time a student’s family was engaged, we logged it in our system. More significant events like parent-teacher conferences as well as smaller, grade-level activities were tracked. Even IEPs, 504 meetings, and phone calls regarding student progress were monitored using our system. Each month, we would communicate current statistics around family engagement. Teachers could see what families remained unengaged in their class as well as the whole school. This gave classroom teachers and support staff the ability to focus on specific families during the following weeks. By April of the first year, our team had achieved their goal of engaging 100% of their families. We engaged the final two families with a visit from the principal and social worker!
The results of our family engagement effort were felt in the overall culture of the school. Truancy cases had decreased throughout the first year. Monthly office referrals began to decline as well. During the second year, the results were even better.
At the time of this article, truancy cases have dropped to nearly zero, and on-campus office referrals for behavior have been cut in half. This year, the UES staff achieved their goal of engaging one hundred percent of their families in mid-March, at the beginning of the COVID 19 crisis. Because our family engagement was so strong, our team could begin focusing on remote learning immediately.
Family Engagement and Leadership
Few people would disagree that engaging families is a good idea. But as the saying goes, someone has to drive the bus. Schools, by their structural nature, can be very isolated. School-wide family engagement has to be a priority of the principal and leadership team of the school. Unfortunately, American educators’ beliefs and actions are often incongruent in family engagement. A 2009 study by Natalie Barnyak and Tracy McNelly found that while educators often expressed a belief in the importance of family engagement, their practice from the classroom was incongruent with their attitudes (Barnyak & McNelly). Effective leaders leverage their position to drive higher rates of family engagement. School leaders must bring their teams together around a vision of improving family engagement if they want to improve education from all fronts.
In the end, if we in education do not make a concerted effort to increase and improve family engagement, we will continue to have an incomplete approach to school improvement. We will never reach the whole child if we are not committed to seeing our responsibility not just to the student in our class but rather to that student’s entire person, and that includes their family.